The September 11 attacks both mobilized America and showed its fragility. Twenty years later, the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East. The greatest beneficiary is not the Muslim world, as Bin Laden dreamed, but two powers reborn in the East.
PARIS — "Men make their own history, but they do not make the history they please." Twenty years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, could Karl Marx's old formula help us understand the upheavals that have occurred in the world during the last two decades?
With the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul, it would be tempting to consider that nothing has happened during these past 20 years beyond the noise, the fury and the unnecessary suffering. Has the world — at least in Kabul — not returned to the way it was in 2001?
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Behind the deceptive appearance of continuity, the world has changed profoundly. But not necessarily in the direction desired by its main protagonists in 2001. Recently declassified manuscripts in Bin Laden's writing — found in his Pakistani hideout in 2011 — shed light on his intentions.
The man behind the 9/11 attacks did not just want to hurt and humiliate America, and rally Muslims behind the creation of a new caliphate. He was convinced that once they were wounded in their flesh and on their own territory, American citizens would take to the streets to demand — as they had done during the Vietnam War — that their country be withdrawn not from Asia but from the Middle East.
With the end of the U.S. presence, everything would become possible: from the overthrow of the Arab regimes in place to the eventual disappearance of that foreign body in the land of Islam, the state of Israel. The conflict between the "believers" and the "infidels" would end in the total defeat of the latter, thus transforming the history of the world.
The main beneficiaries of Bin Laden's were the non-Arab powers in the region: Turkey, Iran and Israel.
In fact, exactly the opposite happened, at least — and this is an essential precision — in the short term. Driven by a desire for self-defense as much as revenge, the United States invaded Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban, which had provided a sanctuary for al-Qaeda terrorists. Attacks on U.S. soil would result in more, not less, America in the Middle East. And the main beneficiaries of Bin Laden's destabilization enterprise were the non-Arab powers in the region: Turkey, Iran and, most importantly, Israel.
Everything happened as if Bin Laden's main intention was to strengthen the Jewish State. Polls conducted in the Arab world as early as 2011 showed (and continue to show) that only a tiny minority of Muslims (1 per 100,000) recognize themselves in the radical project carried by Bin Laden. Moreover, as Fareed Zakaria notes in The Washington Post, the vast majority of Islamist groups, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Al Shabab in the Horn of Africa — not forgetting of course the Taliban in Afghanistan — are local, not global. Their destructive capabilities have not been eliminated, but severely curtailed.
Two pictures showing America's beginning and end of the war in Afghanistan — Photo: Cover Images/ZUMA
Bin Laden has completely failed to unite Muslims behind his romantically bloody project. He succeeded — posthumously — in only one respect, which is certainly decisive: he weakened America and accelerated its departure from the Middle East. But the beneficiaries of this process are neither Muslims nor even Arabs: at the global level, they are the Chinese and the Russians.
In short, Bin Laden has weakened the radical Muslim world and weakened the liberal Western world. And he has done so essentially for the benefit of "Oriental despotism," to use the expression of the American philosopher of German origin, Karl Wittfogel. Historians will tell us whether it is not America above all that has weakened itself, by setting itself objectives that were simply not attainable: to transform Afghanistan and then Iraq into democracies based on the Western model. Foreign invasions never produce democratic regimes in poor and deeply divided societies.
Is the "Biden Doctrine" — which has just been clarified by its author the day after the fall of Kabul — as unrealistic today as Bin Laden's project was yesterday? For Biden, once America has put Afghanistan and the Middle East more generally in its past, it will finally be able to refocus on more important challenges such as global warming or its rivalry with China. It will do so by adopting methods of fighting terrorism or authoritarian rivals, which are more indirect, more appropriate and cost infinitely less in terms of money and human lives.
In geopolitics, perceptions are an essential part of reality.
Unfortunately, the assumption that America — with its allies — are in a much better position to face the challenges of 2021 (which are not the same as those of 2001), is not only partially founded. It presupposes, first of all, that Afghanistan does not become a sanctuary for terrorists. This is far from being guaranteed.
And in geopolitics, perceptions are an essential part of reality. Yet the perception of America — by its adversaries as well as by its allies — has changed profoundly since September 11, 2001 and even more so since the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Europeans spontaneously offered their help to their wounded American brother: an offer disdainfully declined. In this summer of 2021, Europe is no longer wondering what it can do for America, but how it can live without it.
In search of a new "life insurance" policy, it turns to itself. But can Europe — despite its laudable declarations of commitment — present itself as an alternative to America, a credible recourse, if not for the world, at least for itself? In fact, it has no choice. The "return of America" is not the return of the West, no more deeply united in the face of the climate challenge than in the face of China.
Bin Laden has weakened the Arab-Muslim world and the Western world, strengthened Israel and accelerated the rise of Asia. This is a first reading that we will necessarily watch evolve over time.